The Eurasian Steppe: People, Movement, ideas

The Eurasian Steppe: People, Movement, Ideas is an ambitious scholarly volume tracing the origins of the European identity in the Eurasian steppe, the vast expanse of land that stretches from Hungary through to the Ural Mountains and China. Covering a period of 5,000 years, this is a bold account that attempts to turn the spotlight from the all-consuming influence of ancient Rome to the cultures of the steppes that have been too often dismissed as ‘barbarian’.

It is true that the lack of many tangible archaeological remains and written sources makes some of these societies difficult to study but, as the book’s author Warwick Ball points out, ‘although the Scythians are remembered mainly as nomads, they founded kingdoms as far apart as Romania, Crimea, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and China’, and that ‘no other people until the modern period have founded so many and such widespread states’. With the intrinsically mobile nature of these societies comes an equally dynamic flow of ideas and languages. No wonder that the entire Eurasian steppe of the early 1st millennium BC shows signs of a uniform Scythian culture.

The premise of this book is to demonstrate how the languages, ideas, art forms, and peoples of the steppes have shaped almost every aspect of European life. Ball does so by unpacking the hybrid nature of the steppe belt, and he is keen to interrogate popular stereotypes, pointing out that transitional sedentary states were possible, such as with the Cucuteni-Tripolye culture of 4500-3600 BC, near the Black Sea. But at the heart of this book are the many historic attempts to pin down a single Indo-European identity and its prehistoric ‘homeland’, something that, according to Ball, has often turned into a search for the philosopher’s stone. He highlights the ambiguities of identifying the Indo-European language with a single group or even an archaeological culture. Rather than making sensational claims, favouring one group over the other, Ball makes peace with some of those polar views.

A Near Eastern archaeologist, Ball is quick to acknowledge some of the gaps in his chronology, bibliography, definitions, and access to first-hand linguistic sources. Every case study could have been a potential quicksand for getting bogged down in an endless discussion of fact versus myth. Has anyone ever seen an Amazonian female warrior or is it a figment of our imaginations? Did the ‘Silk Road’ really exist? Could Islam or Judaism have developed as the dominant religion in Russia? When it comes to Indo-European identity, much research, consciously or inadvertently, comes to serve ideological and political agendas. But had Ball given in to any of these pressures, we would have probably been robbed of this much-needed holistic overview that gives credit to a vibrant cultural phenomenon.

Review by Eugenia Ellanskaya.
The Eurasian Steppe: People, Movement, ideas, Warwick Ball, Edinburgh University Press, £19.99, Paperback, ISBN 978-1474488068.